Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.


“The Invisible Man”

There’s a big mistake at the heart of “The Invisible Man” and that’s letting us know from the very title that there is indeed an invisible man. And if there was any confusion as to the literality of that title, most of us were introduced to this film through a trailer that shows people being physically attacked by an invisible force. These people aren’t paying tribute to Edward Norton in “Fight Club,” an invisible attacker is the only explanation. We’re going to be spending this entire movie knowing there’s an invisible man, and as futile as this sounds, looking for an invisible man as well.

Elisabeth Moss stars as Cecilia Kass, the ex-girlfriend of the dominating Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). She flees from his house in the middle of the night into the car of her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer, an unfortunate name for someone in a violent suspense movie) and recovers at the home of her cop friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). Though technically free of Adrian, she becomes (or remains) an introvert because she can feel that he’s still out there somewhere, watching her. She then learns from Adrian’s brother Tom (Michael Dorman) that Adrian has died and left her $5 million. She supposes that this should make her feel better, but she still doesn’t feel totally free.

Soon strange things start happening around James’s house. A pan on the stove bursts into flames. It gets put out with a fire extinguisher, which establishes that this family has a fire extinguisher, so it can predictably be used for some invisible man shenanigans later (the same is true of a conspicuous new ladder and a painting project). Something seems to tug on Cecilia’s bed sheet. Is she crazy? She then gets accosted in the shower. Nope, she’s not crazy. No way this is anything but Adrian, still trying to make her life miserable, in a suit that makes the wearer invisible. Good luck proving it, though.

The rest of the film is Cecilia trying to outmaneuver her imperceptible adversary. She’s hindered by a lack of believability, since she has a history of mental illness, the person stalking her is supposedly dead, and invisibility suits aren’t real. Plus she has to deal with the suit itself; even though she knows it’s there, she doesn’t know if her tormentor is ten feet away or two feet away, which puts her at a disadvantage for combat. The one advantage she does have is that the villain isn’t great at subtlety, often manipulating matter in a way that by all accounts should give him away. Witnesses don’t have to make the connection that it’s the dead guy in an invisibility suit, but certain actions are clearly not being performed by any discernable presence.

“The Invisible Man” is getting excellent reviews (its Rotten Tomatoes score is currently higher than nearly half the field of the most recent Best Picture Oscar race), but I can’t say I share in the praise. Yes, Moss gives the material a better performance than it deserves, and it is fun watching some special effects involving a stunt performer made invisible with green-suit technology (Moss is not just struggling with air when she’s being dragged around by the invisible man), but most of the action and suspense scenes are riddled with clichés and stupidity. Also, I couldn’t help but feel like the film wasn’t capitalizing on the potential for a storyline where both Cecilia and the audience wonder if she really is crazy, if maybe crippling doubt is the form Adrian’s revenge is taking. But no, we are simply promised an invisible man, and what we get is a simple “Invisible Man.”

Grade: C

“The Invisible Man” is rated R for some strong bloody violence, and language. Its running time is 124 minutes.


"Onward"

With “Onward,” one streak was going to come to an end. In one corner was Pixar, who after 25 years of making consistently impressive animated films, might finally release a bad one. In the other corner was 2020, which after two months had yet to see the release of a single film I’d recommend (not even this weekend’s well-reviewed “The Invisible Man,” whose high praise I don’t understand). The two went to battle, and as I predicted, Pixar scored a first-round knockout. This film is smart, touching, and of course fun – everything I expect from Pixar and miss in other movies, especially this year.

The film takes place in a world of elves and pixies and other magical creatures. A long time ago it contained magic, but the spells proved dangerous and difficult, so technology was invented for those with no magic in them. As a result, the world now looks like ours, save for the beings that inhabit it and a few adjustments to accommodate their shapes and sizes. The magic has almost disappeared, though a few folks want to preserve it for use in emergencies. I was worried that the movie wouldn’t be able to get me invested in this fantastical world (the way some people complain that they can’t get drawn into the weird world of “Cars”), but the opening moments effectively establish its identity.

Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) are a pair of elf brothers who live with their mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). Ian living with is mother is expected, as he’s just a teenager, but Barley is an adult who just isn’t driven to move out. He has other priorities, like protecting local magical landmarks, playing fantasy board games, and driving around in his junker of a van. The brothers’ father died when Barley was very young and Ian wasn’t even born, so Ian has had to grow up without a father figure, and big brother Barley doesn’t count (or does he?).

On Ian’s sixteenth birthday, the brothers get a long-dormant gift from their late father: a magic staff, complete with a rare gem that can be used to cast a spell to bring the father back for one day. Barley is inherently unfit for magic, but the meeker Ian has the ability to do it – he’s just not very good at it, getting the spell to half-work by bringing back the bottom half of the father’s body without the top half that can talk. The brothers have to go on a quest to get another gem, even though the business of both magic and adventuring are completely new to Ian. Their travels take them to a tavern run by a sellout manticore (Octavia Spencer), a gas station frequented by a rowdy gang of pixie bikers, on the run from their mother’s well-meaning centaur cop boyfriend (Mel Rodriguez), and a host of other challenges, all while they have to keep tabs on their unintentionally half-absent father. And of course, they learn truths and lessons about each other and themselves along the way.

Before I get too carried away, I should pull back and say that “Onward” doesn’t quite reach the upper echelon of Pixar’s output. It can be sloppy at times, like with how magic is supposed to be really difficult in this world, yet Ian learns to master it over the course of 24 hours. Or how the big baddie at the end is a dragon, and this world hasn’t established anything about dragons and their traits. Or how the mother and the manticore go on a side-quest that serves little purpose other than to remind us that these characters are in fact in the movie. But all those complaints melt away when I’m laughing harder in the first five minutes than I have at any whole movie in months, or when I’m audibly (and embarrassingly) gasping at a harrowing action sequence involving a bottomless pit. I charge you to go “Onward” to the theater and see this movie as soon as possible.

Grade: B

“Onward” is rated PG for action/peril and some mild thematic elements. Its running time is 102 minutes.


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